Today I’m going to propose a new theory about the current state of design. Design has gone through many periods with various schools and trends that we can often lump into broader historical design eras. I certainly don’t think I’m the first to propose this but today I believe we are seeing the start of the Great Branding Recession.
Here are the key factors I believe make up the Great Branding Recession:
We’ve gone through a “Boom Cycle”
In the past ten years with the maturation of desktop publishing and the rise of digitally focused design we went through a major boom cycle of design. In economics we see many boom periods of growth and their following bust periods of economic contractions, which are called recessions. Since 2005, the start of the design boom, we’ve seen major advancements in how people interact with design (the User Experience trend) as well as explosions in the quantity of everything related to design (think of how many new typefaces have been created in the past ten years). Heck, the proliferation of design tools and the ability to learn them is the reason I work as a designer today.
App design is the early 2000s housing market
Much like the Housing Boom that was a key factor in the Great Recession, there is a large ubiquitous design trend that has dominated the Design Boom: apps. You have to pay for good design somehow and with the rise of the smartphone apps have been the form factor of choice for funding design. Places like Dribble and Behance are chock full of weather app concepts and countless attempts to recreate app magic in the name of design. If you’re a designer today whose portfolio doesn’t have some sort of app concept you look completely out of touch. We’ve been speculating on the value of app-centric design for years now and, much like the Housing Boom neglected other areas of economic investment, we’re currently looking at a house of cards for the design trend of the past ten years. With the rise of bots and new shifts in how we interact with technology, the app trend has been crashing for at least a year now and it’ll become unmissable soon.
Branding today is no longer aspirational
With the focus on app design, other focuses have been neglected, and public failures of large branding projects have become more and more common. Case in point, what happened to the Olympics? Since the 1990s, every branding attempt at Olympic games branding has become worse and worse. It’s a shame that 2012 London Olympics Logo actually looks good now compared to whatever the hell is going on with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In design, the Olympics had three decades of setting down great markers for design of their day. Take for instance the triumph of design that was the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Mexico ‘68 was so influential that the branding for the sport of soccer is still living in its shadow. I don’t think there is enough design will to create similar aspirational branding akin past Olympics. If we can’t even create good rebrands of companies these days (think the recent Uber, and Airbnb rebrands), how can we design for global cultural events?
CEOs and committees seem to be looking for the next killer app and know that design is part of it, but they don’t value it. Design has become defined by strained storytelling (Uber), and it’s been a struggle for most companies, even Apple, to show any vision in design. You know we’re in a weird period when Microsoft’s rebranding is the most thoroughly visionary rebrand in recent years.
So what now?
Now design is going through an adjustment period. That app design gold rush is playing itself out. Designers are increasingly seeing a trend towards more technical skills (learning to code, etc). A great example of the highly technical design trend is the new focus on data visualization. Along with the highly technical work, we’re seeing a return to classic client design related work regardless of whether designers work independently, in a design firm, or in house (such as my work at the Tax Foundation).
My final words of advice: recognize when you see a trend, but also appreciate the value of good fundamentals.